Smart cities – but only skin deep
- posted September 11, 2020
Cities are subject to constant pressure from digital change. The desire is to use digital technology to help meet current and future urban challenges. The hip new expression for this is the “smart city”. But, to the detriment of the cities and their inhabitants, the reality of many intelligent urban projects is actually rather different – due in no small part to the digital corporations and their market power.
The phrase “digital transformation” can often be found on the websites of many cities right now. But more is not always better, as observers might conclude when viewing the digital transformation of the cities and their infrastructures up and down the country. The reason lies in the excessive and nebulous hitching of the term “digital” to the Latinate word “transformation”. In many cases it has become nothing more than a meaningless catchword, yet cities have eagerly latched onto this latest example of the digital “zeitgeist”. While many town halls are still puzzling over how to do digitalisation, many of those responsible are being railroaded by the digital express train – powered and steered by technology companies. They are clutching a roadmap showing the way to intelligent urban development, so-called smart cities.
In many cases, the goal itself is formulated in only the vaguest of terms and gets obscured by the plethora of buzzwords lining the route, such as “agility”, “Internet of Things” and “sustainability”.
From buzzword to creative class
The Digitalcourage organisation compares smart cities to a marketing paradise, claiming: “Perhaps the name came first (presumably coined by a company) and then the underlying concept – because what exactly constitutes a smart city is only now slowly emerging from the discussions.” The University of Stuttgart uses the word “smart” as a modern buzzword which can denote more or less anything, and in a study entitled “Rethinking the Smart City”, the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation states that “smart city” has multiple meanings. In fact, it claims, “this buzzword was rapidly taken up by certain professional groups and elites”, at which point it spread like wildfire. The researchers who produced the study believe that a “creative class” has emerged: “Smart cities attract smart citizens and smart citizens attract smart money.”
It then comes as little surprise to note that it is consultants who are driving the whole venture, with municipal employees and citizens trailing along behind as passengers. The next smart stop? Who knows!
Cities and residents on the defensive
Speaking of citizens: city leaders might well be tempted by the sound of digital services and solutions for alternative transport, lower energy consumption and greater citizen participation when making their plans for the future – but, as everyone knows, nothing comes for free. And so cities, their leaders and their residents are quickly put on the defensive.
In some cases this is due to external pressure and a lack of knowledge and resources. This is because the main masters of “intelligent” action in smart city projects are not the municipal employees, but digital companies with their solutions, their monopoly of knowledge and their insatiable hunger for data.
One of the reasons for this is that many services are now outsourced to external corporations. The Rosa Luxemburg Foundation believes that cities then find themselves in a vicious circle: “The more services they outsource and the more infrastructure they privatise, the more dependent they are on players like Google (…).”
In other cases it is because their citizens’ interests do not necessarily coincide with the sales targets of Amazon, Cisco, Google etc. According to Digitalcourage, the term smart city is now little more than a marketing tool. To back up its claim, the association quotes from the book “Against the smart city” by US author Adam Greenfeld: “Companies are turning the smart city into a market where they can push their own products – they create their own demand (…)”.
This state of affairs no doubt delights the technology companies. After all, their profits rise with every privatisation and with every “intelligent” solution sold. Cities and their citizens are becoming increasingly dependent. From the companies’ point of view this is indeed smart in the sense of shrewd or clever. However, all we have then are: smart cities – but only skin deep.
Smart Cities, aber nur oberflächlich
Städte stehen unter dem permanenten Druck der digitalen Veränderung. Der Wunsch: Die städtischen Herausforderungen von heute und morgen mithilfe digitaler Technik aufzulösen. Das Modewort dahinter heißt Smart City. Doch die Realität intelligenter Stadtvorhaben sieht anders aus – vor allem aufgrund digitaler Konzerne und deren Marktmacht, zum Nachteil der Städte und ihrer Bürger.